Musical 'East Of The River' Examines A Gentrifying Anacostia Set amid a theoretical debate about a potential Whole Foods arriving in the historically underserved Washington, D.C. neighborhood, the musical looks at the good and the bad of gentrification.
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Musical 'East Of The River' Examines A Gentrifying Anacostia

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Musical 'East Of The River' Examines A Gentrifying Anacostia

Musical 'East Of The River' Examines A Gentrifying Anacostia

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A musical open for one night only in Washington, D.C., that asks, what threatens a great inner city American neighborhood - crime and poverty or organic produce and free-range poultry?

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "EAST OF THE RIVER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) And in four months, assuming everything goes as planned, we break ground right here on Good Hope and 17th for the very first phase of the project - a brand-new Whole Foods.

(CROSSTALK)

SIMON: We went to one of the last rehearsals of "East Of The River" under the bright lights of a basement room in the Anacostia Public Library in Washington, D.C. Anacostia is one of D.C.'s poorest neighborhoods. As the song says, east of the river and east of the end of the Earth.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "EAST OF THE RIVER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #1: (As characters) East of the river and east of the town, east of the end of the Earth, Anacostia.

SIMON: As D.C. becomes wealthier and whiter, housing prices in Anacostia are starting to rise. Developers eye this neighborhood just across the water from the heart of the Capitol.

STAR JOHNSON: Something that I noticed while walking down Potomac Avenue was a white woman with a stroller.

SIMON: Star Johnson is the show's creator. She grew up in the area.

JOHNSON: And I was thinking, what - where am I? Something's changed. Something has fundamentally changed.

SIMON: But what do you call that change?

JOHNSON: It depends on who you ask. Some people will say gentrified. Some people will say it's areas in transition or that have been transitioned. Some people will say areas where the complete soul has been sucked out of it. It just depends on who you ask.

SIMON: And Star Johnson asked many residents of Anacostia how they feel about the change they can see beginning to come into their old neighborhood.

JOHNSON: You don't have some of these tropes that you've seen before - you know, the mean white guy saying, get out of this neighborhood; this is my neighborhood now. And you don't have all the black people saying, don't take our neighborhood away from us. It's varied reactions.

SIMON: It's a musical, too.

JOHNSON: It's a musical. A playwright would probably disagree with me, but I think musical theater is the quickest, most effective way to get to the heart of a story.

SIMON: To move people. To reach into them.

JOHNSON: Yeah. In musical theater, when the dialogue reaches to a certain point, the emotion is just so strong that people sing.

SIMON: Here's Brittney Sankofa playing Nikki, an Anacostia native. She sees hope in the possible arrival of all that organic goodness.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "EAST OF THE RIVER")

BRITTNEY SANKOFA: (As Nikki, rapping) Manchego cheese, fresh nuts and hand-carved meats, farm-raised eggs and bags of gluten-free everything. Sipping tea with the Queen of England, I'm-a get fat from eating even if my little wallet takes a beating. Picture me standing round this posh olive bar. You want to know about delicacies? Come sit with me. I'm bourgeoisie. While y'all spending y'all last dollar on the same old din, I'm Jacques Pepin. I'm trying to be like those white folks.

SIMON: There is not currently a Whole Foods in Anacostia or reported plans for one. But it lurks over the horizon in the plot of "East Of The River," captured in this song called "Manchego Cheese."

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "EAST OF THE RIVER")

SANKOFA: (As Nikki, rapping) What I know is - I know this for sure - I can someday have more grass-fed, low-glycemic, non-GMO. I can someday have more. Rooftop terrace...

SIMON: The show features a pretty fair debate between a young city planner played by LJ Moses, who's come back home with an urban planning degree and plans to improve Anacostia, and a neighborhood friend played by Alesia Ashley.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "EAST OF THE RIVER")

ALESIA ASHLEY: (As character) I'm proud of this place, to be a product of this place. I'm sorry. I'm not going to apologize for that.

L. J. MOSES: (As character) You don't see the crime and neglect in this neighborhood? Something has to give.

ASHLEY: (As character) I see it, but I don't see how this project is going to fix anything. The people in this neighborhood aren't going to benefit 'cause we won't be here in five years.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #2: (As characters, singing) Shine replaces grit. Style replaces spirit. Come on; hear it. There's somebody moving in. New residents take precedent. They're seizing all the benefits. At what expense? At what expense? At what expense?

SIMON: But Star Johnson doesn't see the show she's put together about the costs of going from urban blight to artisanal lattes as a black-and-white story of villains and victims.

JOHNSON: I always say gentrification is not good or bad. It's good and bad. And I don't know that it always answers the question that needs to be asked. I think it answers a question but not necessarily the one that needs to be asked.

SIMON: Well, tell me that one.

JOHNSON: How do you retain the soul of these communities that have been here forever while making it a safer and happier place for the people to live? How do you do that?

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "EAST OF THE RIVER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing) Rivers form a barrier. No one's going to bury us.

SIMON: "East Of The River" opened last night for its first and so far only scheduled performance. The show ends with a rousing vow that makes you think the story it tells and the people who sing it will be back.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "EAST OF THE RIVER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing) No one's going to bury us.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #3: (As characters, singing) No one's going to bury us.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #2: (As character, singing) No one's going to bury us.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #3: (As characters, singing) No one's going to bury us.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #2: (As character, singing) No one's going to bury us.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #3: (As characters, singing) No one's going to bury us.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #2: (As character, singing) No one's going to bury us.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #3: (As characters, singing) No one's going to bury us.

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